02 Kirk LightseyKirk Lightsey – Mark Whitfield; Santi Debriano; Victor Lewis
Live at Smalls Jazz Club
Cellar Music CLSMF003 (cellarlive.com)

Legendary pianist, Detroit-native Kirk Lightsey, has been gracing the ears of listeners around the world for nearly 70 years. The same energy that the stellar musician started out with has carried on within this latest release, a special live recording at New York City’s Smalls Jazz Club that highlights the fantastic work of this jazz great. As a little aside, the Smalls LIVE Mastering Series is a great set of recordings, showcasing the best of jazz musicians that are still with us. Joining Lightsey is a stellar backing band featuring renowned musicians such as Mark Whitfield on guitar, Santi Debriano on bass and Victor Lewis on drums. The album is chock-full of great renditions of classic tunes, such as In Your Own Sweet Way by Dave Brubeck and Lament by J.J. Johnson. Scintillating talent is present on this record; it’s an all-encompassing musical journey that draws the listener right in.  

The musicianship and thought put into detail throughout these pieces and renditions is just marvellous. A perfect example of this is Freedom Jazz Dance, featuring rhythmically tight piano riffs, a moving bass line that underpins soaring solos and keeps the energy constantly brewing and an intricate guitar melody that just pulls you in and captivates you with those tiny nuances. In these tunes, magical feeling develops where the music completely envelops you and everything else disappears. For new and seasoned jazz lovers alike, this is one record to check out.

03 Rachel TherrienMi Hogar
Rachel Therrien Latin Jazz Project
Outside In Music OiM2307 (outsideinmusic.com)

Wanting a mini-vacation from these dark and dreary winter days, imagining sunny beaches and a sparkling blue sea? Montreal native, star flugelhornist, trumpeter and bandleader Rachel Therrien’s newest album is for you. Sultry rhythms and mellow melodies instantly transport the listener to a far-away world where the sun shines and the balmy breeze blows. Therrien has gathered top musicians who have been involved with the Latin jazz world over the years, including Michel Medrano Brindis on drums, Miguel de Armas on piano, Roberto Riveron on bass… the list goes on. The record features fresh takes on classic tunes by greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Francisco Tarrega with a few of Therrien’s own compositions thrown into the mix. 

The impressive bandleader has always been inspired by the world of Latin jazz, which led to the eventual recording and release of this album. Therrien describes her travels to Cuba: “The experience changed my life and is probably the reason why I am still a musician today. I always felt good playing Latin-influenced music, it is where I feel I can express myself the most musically.” A couple of pieces that stand out are Moment’s Notice, a rhythmically charged, spicy little ditty that instantly raises the spirits of the listener and Mojo, featuring a fiery piano solo and funky bass line underpinning a soaring horn solo that gets you moving and grooving. A truly worthy addition to any jazz connoisseur’s collection. 

04 Yorgos DimitriadisBeing Five
Relative Pitch RPR  1181 (relativepitchrecords.com)

Collectively creating an essay in forceful improvisation, the Being Five quintet is as international as its five-part program is intense. Percussionist Yorgos Dimitriadis is Greek; bassist Christopher Williams and accordionist Andrea Parkins, American; clarinetist Lori Freedman is Canadian; and trumpeter Axel Dörner, German. Adding understated but effective electronic trappings throughout, the quintet members achieve a notable balance between the spontaneous and the synthesized. Additionally, intervallic pauses distinguish the astute alternations between luminous solos and the shaded, sometimes menacing, group wave-form expositions.

As the session evolves, Dimitriadis stays in the background with an occasional drum slap or cymbal plink, affirming slippery clarinet peeps, or pressurized bass string slices that can be distinguished in the midst of intermittent crackling voltage that is also strengthened by tremolo accordion pulses. Other times, as on Amusik Bis, Freedman’s pedal point clarinet and Dörner’s portamento squeezes outline a variant of tandem lyricism. But it’s the concluding Freeze that most precisely defines the program. With only the occasional clarion reed bite cutting through the machine-generated buzz and hiss at first, continuous voltage drones become louder, more concentrated, strident and synthesized, so that by the penultimate sequenced sound concatenation seems almost impenetrable. That is until chalumeau clarinet purrs and inflating accordion pumps reassert the session’s acoustic side before a collective finale. 

An exemplary interpretation of electro/acoustic improvising, Being Five also demonstrates that musicians’ geographic origins mean little when creating a vivid group project.

05 Phillips KurtagFace à Face
Barre Phillips; György Kurtág Jr.
ECM New Series ECM 2736 (ecmrecords.com)

More of a realized experiment than a full-fledged program, the dozen brief tracks here mark veteran American bassist Barre Phillips’ first accommodation with the electronics produced by Hungarian keyboardist György Kurtág Jr. Using three stand-alone synthesizers and digital percussion, Kurtág burbles, drones and vibrates ever-evolving oscillations with textures ranging from the daunting to the delicate.

All the while the bassist, whose improvisational experience goes back to the early 1960s, crafts parallel constructs that involve every part of his instrument during tracks that are timed from 90 seconds to nearly four and a half minutes. Phillips uses techniques such as col legno string bounces or pressurized sul ponticello bow slices to cut through the often-confined density from the machine-generated programming. Occasionally, as on Sharpen Your Eyes and Ruptured Air, more melodic suggestions are introduced with woody slaps from the bass meeting recorder-like peeps from the synthesizer on the former, and low-pitched string twangs evolving alongside high-pitched synthesized wriggles on the album describing the second title. 

Overall, since Phillips can also finesse textures among other motifs encompassing measured violin-like runs and banjo-like clangs, the expanding programmed pressure never becomes oppressive. Genuinely fascinating, at points the disc also clarifies how acoustic and electronic timbres can unfold face à face with each prominent in its own space.

06 Jeannette LambertOpera of the Unspoken: Island of Unrest
Jeanette Lambert
Independent (jeannettelambert.bandcamp.com)

This significant and ambitious project is best described by the composer/creator herself as “an experimental jazz opera that is also a musical investigation into the mysteries of an ancestral tragedy from World War II, as revealed through vocal rituals, ancestral tarot, free jazz and dreaming.” Jeanette Lambert was seeking a way to honour her forbearers, and also tell the horrific story of her multi-racial ancestors who passed through the horrors of the war, and their ultimate survival, achieved through the spiritual strength of her female ancestors. The tragedy originates with Lambert’s German grandfather – a civilian interned (along with his Javanese wife) by the Dutch in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) during the war. In order to manifest this epic, Jeanette called upon her own family as well as vocalists, poets and descendants of those who had also suffered the horrors of war and captivity.  

In the construction of this large-scale piece, Lambert has used the structure of the Tarot to explore the truth of the Van Imhoff tragedy (the violence in Banten), and to ultimately instigate the dream-laden ancestral healing of all. The opera begins with Three of Pentacles – comprised of ancient, dreamy, diatonic a cappella chants that begin the journey. Ace of Wands follows… descriptive and poetic, and punctuated by percussive (Michel Lambert) and guitar (Reg Schwager) motifs. Lambert’s potent vocal instrument begins to relate the story through the infrastructure of the tarot, and with Dreaming of Pomelo a portrait of Indonesia begins to emerge as the tragedies loom. 

On Four of Wands, gamelans and spoken word rail against the immoral incidents while military drum tattoos and vocal distortion plumb the horror. On Sorrow Unleashed, the weeping, wailing and keening of the mothers – reaching back into the mists of time – is underscored by heartrending string and flute lines. Lambert’s potent opera ends with the dream of hope and healing. This is a multi-disciplinary master work, and a journey that is essential for all free-thinking human beings. Brava.

07 ThermoBirdLike
GB Records (thermomusic.com)

This exquisite jazz recording is the result of the creative pairing of pianist/composer Mike Manny and guitarist/composer Nathan Hiltz. Their duo, Thermo, manifested during the pandemic by playing/performing “together” in separate places, through the use of low-latency recording technology. Both gentlemen wear producer’s hats here, and not only have they assembled a dazzling program of tunes, but they have also created the ultimate jazz quartet with the addition of bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Morgan Childs. In addition to two of their individual compositions, Manny and Hiltz have also served up a sumptuous jazz buffet, featuring works from icons Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael, Cedar Walton, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver.

Things kick off with Avita and Tequila by Mobley. Manny and Hiltz dig in here with a solid bop sensibility, and their unison lines morph into the full, satisfying quartet sound. Swainson and Childs lock in immediately and propel the action, with elegant solos from all. Next up is Betty’s Buns – a groovy, swinging original by Manny dedicated to the Cape Breton piano player and baker of delicious buns, Betty Lou Beaton. Big fat chords and a cooking melodic line define this delightful tune featuring an effortless solo by Swainson. Of special beauty is Carmichael and Mercer’s Skylark. One of the loveliest ballads ever written is performed here with sensitivity, skill and deep emotion. Manny seemingly channels the great Bill Evans without ever being derivative.

Hiltz’s composition, Fountain Scenery, is a guitar feature and a bit of a nod to Richard Rodgers’ Mountain Greenery. His sound here is warm, succinct and utterly pure, reminiscent of Jim Hall. Although every track on this project is a shining bebop bauble, other highlights include Wayne Shorter’s This is for Albert, where Manny and Hiltz soar through the arrangement in synchronous motion and the listener gets dipped into some serious jazz juice! A triumph!

Listen to 'BirdLike' Now in the Listening Room

08 Tobias HoffmannConspiracy
Tobias Hoffmann Jazz Orchestra
Mons Records MR874757 (tobiashoffmannmusic.com)

Tobias Hoffmann’s 2019 recording was the celebrated Retrospective, featuring repertoire for nine musicians. The almost nonchalant manner in which he declared that he couldn’t express his new music unless he had his “…own band to make sure that my music was performed on the highest possible level” belies the enormous undertaking of leading an ensemble as large as this expanded Jazz Orchestra.

Hoffmann calls the disc Conspiracy, which is a title filled with both whimsy and the very real suggestion that the artist – by nature a (cultural) guerrilla – engages in conspiracy to manoeuvre his way into his listeners’ sensibilities. Using a language that is informed as much by classical symphonic idioms, devices and gestures, and the enormously popular, contemporary jazzy vernacular, Hoffmann has created a recording which fuses the styles with a naturalness and authenticity that eludes many ensembles of this size and scope.

Moreover, Hoffmann’s recording is not only conspiratorial, but also compelling. In particular, the extended narratives – Conspiracy, Trailblazers, Importer Syndrome and Awakening – are tone poems rich in imagery. In each of these works – as in the rest of the repertoire – we come face-to-face with performers who have interiorized Hoffmann’s singular mind and the poetics of his work, and go on to interpret it with idiomatic power and all the attendant drama, throughout the length of the disc.

Listen to 'Conspiracy' Now in the Listening Room

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